The legal age to purchase tobacco is steadily rising, but will that be enough to curb underaged smoking? PHOTO: Brenan Yeo

Tay Yu Ling is 22 and has been smoking for 11 years.

She started smoking in primary school under peer influence. “At that age, you’ll do anything to fit in.”

Yu Ling used to get her cigarettes by asking from her friends or stealing from her mother. Now, she can afford to buy her own and smokes regularly to relieve stress from school and work.

“I know of the usual health risks you see on the packaging. All the cancers, heart disease and lung disease,” she said. But she doesn’t plan to quit smoking. “I’m here for a good time, not a long time.”

Over the years, the smoking rate in Singapore has dropped steadily from 18.3 per cent in 1992 to 12 per cent in 2017. To further reduce the rate, the Health Ministry has in recent years ramped out efforts to discourage the young from tobacco use.

A study by the Singapore Cancer Society with 1,000 participants found that more than half of them are smokers. About 80 per cent of the adult smokers said they first lit up before the age of 21. Most young smokers experimented with tobacco around the ages of 12 to 14. If they’re hooked as a teenager, they are likely to remain a smoker for a long time.

The study also found that 3 in 5 smokers are concerned with the ill-effects of smoking. But many also see smoking as an opportunity to bond with their friends and colleagues, and are reluctant to kick the habit.

Susan Lee, 19, is one of them. Although concerned with her physical health, she finds it difficult to give up smoking.

Similar to Yu Ling, Susan started social smoking to “fit in” with her peers. She took her first puff at 14 and became a regular smoker by 16. She used to buy her cigarettes illegally at neighborhood provision shops and even convenience stores like 7-11 and Cheers.

“It wasn’t hard since they don’t really check identification cards, especially if you dress up to look a bit older, or if you show enough confidence,” Susan said.

She’s noticed a drop in her stamina lately. But whenever she’s stressed over school work and family matters, she still lights up to calm herself down.

“I haven’t found a convenient, new way of escapism. So I turn to smoking for a release.”

But she would not encourage others to try smoking.

“Laws are set for a reason,” Susan said.

The government is raising the legal smoking age progressively from 18 to 21 in 2021. Underaged individuals caught smoking or buying cigarettes could be fined up to $300. Their families and teachers will also be notified.

Retailers who sell tobacco products to underaged smokers could be fined up to $5,000 for a first offence, and $10,000 for subsequent offences.